The essayist on unsentimental endings, Little House On the Prairie vs. Woody Allen, and why the conversation about not having kids “needs to be reframed.”
Meghan Daum is a writer who plumbs seemingly unexceptional life choices for their emotional weight and social resonance. The well-known title piece of her essay collection My Misspent Youth (2001) charts her adolescent obsession with New York City; financial struggles while living in Manhattan; and eventual decision to leave the city for Nebraska, where she stayed for several years before settling in Los Angeles. Her 2010 memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, is proof of the humor and profundity to be found in house-hunting, and of how the search for a place to make home reflects our deeper desires and conceptions of self.
Daum’s latest essay collection, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (2014), explores everyday sentiments and events often deemed taboo: ambivalence about motherhood, relief at the death of a parent, romantic experimentation. Daum confronts these with frankness and acuity, and, refreshingly, skirts certainty and tidy endings. “In the history of the world, a whole story has never been told,” she writes.
“Matricide,” the much-discussed essay that opens The Unspeakable, is a stark consideration of Daum’s experience caring for her dying mother. “When my mother was sick I found there was an incredible expectation for me to tell everybody how we were having this bonding experience and how healing it was,” she says in the interview that follows. But neither mother nor daughter found themselves feeling this way. Daum here confronts the challenges of their relationship, at times articulating what may seem like the unsayable: “I had entertained a passing fantasy that my mother would get hit by a bus. The oncologist had just delivered the news that the chemotherapy was working.” She is not afraid to expose the underbelly of grief, something many of her readers will have endured.
Neither is she hesitant to debunk what we sometimes tell ourselves about romance, and about marriage. In “The Best Possible Experience,” another of the book’s essays, Daum admits that she pursued her love interests in search of authentic experiences and for the stories she could later tell about those experiences. She regarded her partners “less as potential life mates than as characters in a movie I happened to have wandered into,” and writes of her dating life: “I spent most of it with absolutely no eye toward making a permanent commitment. What I was in it for, what I was about, was the fieldwork aspect.” But Daum goes on to grant that perhaps this deliberate fieldwork and the search for something genuine were both romantic in nature. “Perhaps I was mistaken about myself,” she reflects. “What is more dreamily reckless, after all, than dating people in part for their plotlines—the ones they bring with them and the ones we take with us when we leave?”
The same outspokenness presides over Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, an anthology of essays from writers who have chosen not to have kids, edited by Daum and published this year. The collection, which includes contributions from Geoff Dyer, Sigrid Nunez, and Kate Christensen, received widespread praise for injecting complexity into this often-fraught decision. Writes Nathalie Atkinson in The Globe and Mail, “With welcome, sometimes breathtaking candour, the writers (13 women, three men) debunk the idea that the childless by choice are homogenous.” For her contributions to the realm of nonfiction, Daum was recently named a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow.
“It’s always mattered less that we understood what she was saying than that she understood what we were feeling,” she writes of the musician Joni Mitchell. And Daum extends that notion in support of art that channels one’s own complex emotions and what they might offer to others—indeed, the sort of art that has positioned her, in the words of the New York Times, “among the best personal essayists of a searching, cynical generation that’s lucky to have her.” As I spoke with Daum on Manhattan’s Upper West Side this winter, I was struck by how effectively she has culled happenings from her own life to produce a kind of holistic social commentary. Daum’s work is as deeply authentic as that which she’s lived through, and as widely relevant.
—Abigail Sindzinski for Guernica
Guernica: I’m curious to hear about the legacy of your essay on New York City, “My Misspent Youth,” especially now that the “leaving New York City” trope has become so common.
Meghan Daum: Well, my essay was a rewrite of Joan Didion’s essay [“Goodbye to All That”]. I mean, it has always been thus, you know? It’s funny, the piece is so old but I don’t think a week goes by where I don’t hear from somebody who just discovered it and it seems really relevant to them.
New York is such a special place. It’s really intense for people because they live here when they’re young. On top of the energy of the city there’s a visceral experience a lot of people have because it’s a time in their lives where they’re just absorbing a lot. Things take on a significance that they might not otherwise. It’s funny being back now—I’m teaching in the [Columbia MFA] program that I was in.
Guernica: How do you like New York these days?
Meghan Daum: I love it. But I’m here in a temporary way. I don’t have to get too, too invested. But—this is a whole other discussion that’s so fraught—just the neighborhoods that have been gentrified since I’ve been here, the city’s boundaries have changed so much. I’m going to do half my time [in Brooklyn] and half my time in Harlem. I’m a double gentrifier, a gentrification sampler.
Guernica: In your essay “Not What It Used to Be,” you write about having a closer kinship to the baby boomers than to Gen Xers. Can you expand on that?
Meghan Daum: People who grew up before the blogosphere, I just think that your brain is wired differently. I feel like in some ways my sensibility is aligned with people twenty years older than me than somebody six years younger. Because there was a sort of cutoff. I started my professional career before the blogosphere existed in any sort of meaningful way. I think that my approach as a writer was certainly freer because I wasn’t worried, I didn’t have commenters on me right from the get-go. I didn’t have this instant-reaction culture that young writers have to deal with now. I had different things—I was listed in the phone book and people would look me up and call me and yell at me, but that was about as bad as it got.
As soon as I stopped going to meetings and stopped beating myself up because I wasn’t making a ton of money writing for some stupid sitcom, I felt really at home.
Guernica: How did you come to see Los Angeles as home, after your time in New York and Nebraska?
Meghan Daum: I’ve just been there a long time. I think it started to feel like home when I stopped maintaining any pretense that I was ever going to be in the movie business. I went there like many writers—I had a screenplay deal and I would go to these meetings and it was the typical thing. And I hated it. I was not interested in writing screenplays, actually. But I kept feeling like that was what I was supposed to do. It was just this horrible cognitive dissonance.
As soon as I accepted that I am this kind of writer and I happen to live here, and stopped going to meetings and stopped beating myself up because I wasn’t making a ton of money writing for some stupid sitcom, I felt really at home.
I think LA is also so much about finding your neighborhood. It’s a collection of neighborhoods. I lived in several different neighborhoods before I found the one that I liked. So that was part of it.
Guernica: Willa Cather comes up in many of your books. Can you talk about her influence?
Meghan Daum: I don’t think I write like her at all. I really like her, though. She’s sort of a butch figure. I don’t think she’s an honorary dyke, I think she’s, like, a real one. I think she embodies the sort of woman-of-the-prairie, woman-of-the-frontier persona that always appealed to me.
I loved Little House on the Prairie [when I was young]. I loved all that stuff. There were always two tracks with me: I was enamored of the city and I had the Woody Allen fetish and all that, and then the other side was the big sky and the prairie. Moving to Nebraska was definitely living out that side of myself. I do really love the landscape. It’s my favorite landscape. I think if my husband was not a serious cyclist who needs mountains I would definitely try to have some kind of second home in Nebraska.
Guernica: I was going to ask about Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, and the catalyst for getting out of the obsessive house phase—although it sounds like maybe you’re not out of it?
Meghan Daum: No, I never got out of it. I just am a person who loves houses. In a way, it’s dovetailed into one of the themes of The Unspeakable: Why do you have to change? Why don’t you just accept that this is how you are? Why do you have to grow from an experience?
I wrote this whole book about how I like houses. Why should it be pathologized? I’m not hurting anybody. It’s not like I’m buying every house. I’m passionate about them. I walk past brownstones at night and I just look in windows and they take my breath away. They’re so beautiful to me. You know, the sort of genuine article-ness of them. I can’t help it.
My mother was totally like that. She loved real estate and going to open houses and rearranging the furniture, and moving and thinking about moving. She would take walks at night so she could look in people’s windows. It’s very much from her.
Guernica: How did you decide to write The Unspeakable?
Meghan Daum: I feel that I’m an essayist and that my best work gets done in that form. I wanted to do a book where the essays could exist on their own terms. A book that was neither a book of essays that were shoehorned into a memoir, nor [one where] the essays had been published elsewhere first, [because] then they would kind of bear the marks of those publications. My Misspent Youth is a lot like that. It’s fairly coherent but a lot of those pieces appeared elsewhere. It’s like, “This piece is a GQ-ish piece” and “This piece is a New Yorker piece.” So I wanted to just create [essays] to exist in their own company, and on their own terms.
It’s not like the publishing community was like, “Bring it on.” Two years ago it was the worst idea ever to do an essay collection. I never understood [why] because readers love them, and they always have. Publishers don’t like them primarily because it’s really hard to explain what the book is about. With a collection of short stories or essays, you can’t do that unless, you know, it’s something like Bad Feminist. That book wraps it up in two words. That’s brilliant.
We’ve never been in a time where mothers—parenthood, but particularly motherhood—is so fetishized.
Guernica: You’ve talked about how “Matricide,” an essay about the death of your mother and the disjunction between emotional expectation and reality, was the most difficult piece in the book to write.
Meghan Daum: We’ve never been in a time where mothers—parenthood, but particularly motherhood—is so fetishized. There’s a whole industry around motherhood and mother-daughter bonds. And certainly when my mother was sick I found there was an incredible expectation for me to tell everybody how we were having this bonding experience and how healing it was.
The fact is that she was not really very interested in, or not able to really access, those feelings that we’re expected to have, and neither was I. I felt like a failure about it. I felt I had to present something else to the world, and there was really a performance aspect to caring for her and grieving and being an intermediary with people who were concerned about her. I just knew that I needed to tell this particular story and examine these particular ideas. I think, I hope, it speaks for itself.
Guernica: You’re in your forties now. Do you find this part of your life harder than periods in your twenties or your thirties?
Meghan Daum: No, I feel like it’s easier. What amazes me is when I see people in their twenties who have families or live a life that seems of a much older person. But that’s such a demographic, a socio-economic, cultural, class thing.
I’ve always been a late bloomer in some ways, and extremely precocious in other ways. When I was twenty I was living in New York and working a job and could barely bother to be a college student and had my own apartment, but I couldn’t possibly get married before I was thirty-nine.
Guernica: What did you think of Nebraska when you lived there in your early thirties?
Meghan Daum: My big observation—this was the underlying theme of my novel The Quality of Life Report—is the idea of the margin for error. The controlling metaphor of my experience had to do with landing in Lincoln in the airplane. The runway was so big, it’s actually an alternate landing for the space shuttle, and because there are cornfields everywhere when you’re landing you could go a little off. You land at LaGuardia and one little thing, you’re dead, it’s over.
In New York the stakes are so high. In urban centers the stakes are so high. You marry the wrong person, you go to the wrong college, you take the wrong job. Any of these things could really get you in trouble down the road. Or in your mind anyway. You’re afraid to make any move, it’s paralyzing.
In Nebraska you’d see these people who were twenty-seven and divorced already. Because the cost of living was low enough that it didn’t really matter that much, and the community was forgiving. There wasn’t this high-stress, judgmental sensibility around you all the time. I found it fascinating. I found that really those people had much richer, much more interesting lives. Whereas I was thirty years old and barely could drive a car. My experiences were so provincial, I was just somebody who had been living in Manhattan, and I did not know so many things. I think that I have carried that with me.
Guernica: What do you think about the debates over having kids that are playing out in the media and our culture today? Have your feelings about not wanting kids changed in your thirties and forties?
Meghan Daum: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt I have more authority on that subject. I think the conversation needs to be reframed. What I hate—a lot of conversations about choosing not to have children tend to be couched in these superficial terms, or kind of glib, “I’d rather have a Porsche” or “I forgot to have kids.” No you didn’t. I don’t understand why it’s more socially acceptable to say that you are a shallow person than to just say this is not something you want to do. Especially because it’s a really hard job. It’s a really important job. And why the hell should you do a really hard, important job that you don’t want to do? That has extremely high stakes? That just blows my mind.
Guernica: In “Difference Maker,” you write about working as a court-appointed child advocate, and in particular one case of a foster-care child you call Matthew. Are you still doing that work? You describe some of the difficulty and limitations of it.
Meghan Daum: Yeah, I really like doing it. Part of the thing is that I’m very restricted about what I can write about doing that case in particular [with Matthew], and doing it in general.
There’s this real tragedy and I am, for better or for worse, able to not internalize it, and do what I can do to help. I know a lot of parents who would get really upset, and that’s because they’re seeing their own kids in it. I don’t have that.
Guernica: What seems hardest is that there’s a point at which you can’t necessarily know what will happen to the kids you’re working with.
Meghan Daum: Right. Certainly, though, a lot them really are there for the long haul. I’ve only been doing it for three or four years, so who knows. I’m interested in the system. I like helping the kids but I like working with the adults in the system, because it is such a different world. It feels very healthy, actually, because as sick and fucked up as it is, it actually feels healthy to get out of my stupid world and be in that stupid world for a while. It’s totally unreal. But within it, it’s just like anything else: there are amazing people, it’s just that their hands are tied a lot of the time. There’s a great movie called Short Term 12, and it is so realistic. Really screwed up but also amazing people embedded in the system.
Guernica: You do a great job exploring this concept of kids needing a person who isn’t a parent and has this external perspective. I think people underestimate that need.
Meghan Daum: Totally. I grew up in a town where there were no adults over forty who weren’t somebody’s parents. It was, unfortunately, the kind of town that’s a “great places to raise kids”—that’s basically code for “there are no adults here who are not parents.” I had a few teachers who were kind of weirdo drama teachers and were hugely influential.
I’m such an unsentimental person that to have this death-themed wedding was kind of perfect.
Guernica: Throughout The Unspeakable, you consistently work against the notion of transcendence—the notion that life needs to be quest-ridden. How do you think that element of your personality developed?
Meghan Daum: I think that it came from just writing these pieces again and again and again over the years as a journalist and as an essayist and as somebody who’s dealing with editors who always want that kind of ending. If I learned anything from Nebraska—I mean, The Quality of Life Report is about this idea of the simplicity movement and cleansing your soul to “become a better person,” and you get there and you realize that it’s totally messed up and more complicated than the city that you came from.
Experiencing that and being in editorial situations where I’m being asked to tack this ending on that doesn’t feel authentic, I think maybe I said, “I can’t do this anymore.” It feels like a sellout every time.
Guernica: In “Matricide,” you write about your marriage as a kind of gift to your mother.
Meghan Daum: I [married] for her but also for me. Because my father just sort of does not care about that kind of stuff. My family is not a family-oriented family, so I think the idea of getting married with just my father and my brother there would almost seem like it didn’t count. Because they were not—they just wouldn’t have been into it. It would have seemed such a shame to have her not there.
I didn’t need her for a lot of things, but this is something that I felt like I truly did. And it was a good activity to have during that time other than focusing on her dying. I’m such an unsentimental person that to have this death-themed wedding was kind of perfect. We actually loved it. We planned the wedding in five days. We love that our wedding pictures have some random homeless guy in the corner [laughs]. It’s great. It’s like, joggers!
To contact Guernica or Abigail Sindzinski, please write here.